14 Types of Seabirds for Birdwatchers

What Are Pelagic Birds?

sea-faring birds

The Spruce / Giuseppe Intrieri

Seabirds are also termed "pelagic" or marine birds. They live on the ocean, most eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, or aquatic vegetation. Generally, they have dense, waterproof feathers, and layers of fat to keep them warm. A unique feature about seabirds is that they have desalination filters in their bills that can eliminate salt from the water they drink. Some have webbed or partially webbed feet for swimming, plucking fish from the shallows, or executing precise, plunging dives. In general, seabirds live longer than other wild birds; most have an average lifespan of 50 years.


Birdwatchers can usually find seabirds roosting along rocky, cliff-lined coasts after their annual migration. Almost all seabirds live in colonies, migrate annually, and mate for life.

Here are 14 common types of seabirds to look for that'll make coastal birding even more special.

  • 01 of 14


    Black-Footed Albatross

    Tim Lenz / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Albatrosses are tremendous pelagic birds. They are among the largest flying birds in the world, with mammoth wingspans and long, narrow wings that give them superb lift for easy flight. Their large wingspan allows them to travel long distances, sometimes up to 10,000 miles in a single journey. Unlike many marine birds, albatrosses also walk well on land. There are 22 albatross species in the world, all in the Diomedeidae family.

    Species Overview

    Length: 6.5- to 11-foot wingspan

    Weight: 13 to 28 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Large wingspan for flying long distances; 5- to 7-inch hooked bills for catching fish; tall birds, standing about 4 feet tall; colors vary greatly with black tails, white body feathers, dark upper wings, or all dark body colors

  • 02 of 14


    Pigeon Guillemot

    Alan Vernon / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

    There are many auk species, like murres, puffins, and guillemots. They all have compact bodies well adapted to northern seas and colder waters. These birds typically have an upright posture on land and can be clumsy when walking. Most have black and white plumage, and many also have colorful bills or distinct markings. All auks are part of the Alcidae bird family.

    Species Overview

    Length: 6 to 16 inches

    Weight: 3 ounces to 2.2 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Small to medium-sized marine diving birds; short, narrow wings; short tails; great variety of bill shapes and sizes

  • 03 of 14


    Nazca Booby

    Alan / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Seven booby species are in the Sulidae family. They are named for their silly facial expressions and history of gullible behavior around sailors. These beautiful tropical gannets have bright bills and feet, including the celebrated blue-footed booby. They are larger, heavy birds that can seem awkward in flight and on land, but they are excellent fliers and divers. You can often find them perched on buoys, cliffs, or rocks. Boobies prefer to eat anchovies, mackerel, sardines, and squid.

    Species Overview

    Length: 5- to 6-foot wingspan

    Weight: 2 to 4 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Long bills; cigar-shaped bodies; featuring long, narrow, angular wings for flying high and plunging headlong into the water in a swift, vertical drop

  • 04 of 14


    Magnificent Frigatebird

    David Brossard / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

    Also called pirate birds or man-of-war birds, frigatebirds are stately fliers with long, hooked bills, sharply pointed wings, and boldly forked tails. The red throat pouch of the males is distinctive, as is this bird's high, soaring flight. All five species of frigatebirds belong to the Fregatidae family and are large birds that may circle slowly and elegantly before diving to steal fish from other birds.

    Species Overview

    Length: 7- to 8-foot wingspan

    Weight: 2 to 4 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Mostly black in coloration, with small webbed feet; adult males inflate red gular pouches to attract mates; adult females have white markings on their undersides

    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14


    Northern Fulmar

    Arne List / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

    Because of their chunky build and short tails, fulmars are a type of petrel that look very similar to gulls. They are opportunistic feeders, foraging widely, including scavenging in the trash or eating carrion. They have long tubular noses with prominent bill structures for saltwater filtration. There are only two fulmar species in the Procellariidae family: the northern and the southern fulmar.

    Species Overview

    Length: 15 to 19 inches; 3-foot wingspan

    Weight: 1 to 2 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Heavyset, medium-sized seabird with a short neck, stout body, large head, and long wings; bill is stout and hooked, with two nasal tubes on the top edge; color is primarily gray on the wings with white undersides, similar to large gulls; some are pale to dark gray all over

  • 06 of 14


    Australasian Gannet

    Wayne Butterworth / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Gannets are large seabirds with chunky builds that appear somewhat ungainly on land, but they are strong fliers and powerful dive fishers. Closely related to boobies, they also belong to the Sulidae family. All three gannet species—northern gannet, cape gannet, and Australasian gannet—look very similar. Sometimes you can only tell the species apart by where they are living.

    Species Overview

    Length: 36 to 43 inches; 6-foot wingspan

    Weight: 5 to 7 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Buff-tinged heads, sharp bill, pointed tail, and long slender wings with white plumage and black wingtips

  • 07 of 14


    Common Murre

    Dan Hershman / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    A type of auk that resembles penguins, murres have dark and light counter-shaded plumage and swim underwater to pursue fish. They have an upright posture and a clumsy, waddling gait when on land. There are only two murre species, the common murre, and the thick-billed murre, both found in northern oceans. These species are in the Alcidae bird family, along with puffins and guillemots.

    Species Overview

    Length: 15 to 17 inches; 24- to 29-inch wingspan

    Weight: 1.7 to 2.8 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Signature black-and-white appearance; thin dark, pointed bill; small rounded dark tail; white face with a dark spur behind the eye

  • 08 of 14


    Emperor Penguin

    Christopher Michel / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Flightless birds of the southern oceans, penguins are specialized seabirds in the Spheniscidae family well equipped for frigid waters with insulating plumage and fat. They are stunning swimmers and have specialized flippers rather than feathered wings. However, despite their chilly reputation, several penguin species breed in tropical regions, such as the little penguins. The 18 penguin species vary significantly in size and range, though several penguin species are physically similar.

    Species Overview

    Length: 15 inches to 3.5 feet

    Weight: 2 to 88 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Body is streamlined, elongated, and tapered at both ends for swimming; large head, short neck, and elongated body; tail is short, stiff, and wedge-shaped; legs and webbed feet are set far back on the body

    Continue to 9 of 14 below.
  • 09 of 14


    Cape Petrel

    Ed Dunens / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Petrels are small seabirds distinguished by their elongated, tubular nostrils and low, wave-skimming flight. They often stay so close to the water that they have the appearance of walking on its surface. Like many seabirds, petrels stay at sea nearly all their lives, returning to land only to breed. The term "petrel" is found in several scientific families; however, true petrels are generally considered part of the Procellariidae family.

    Species Overview

    Length: 31 to 37 inches; 5- to 7-foot wingspan

    Weight: 6 to 11 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Bluish-gray or darker and white coloration; legs and feet of blue petrels are bright blue; shallowly forked tails; long, slender wings

  • 10 of 14


    Atlantic Puffin

    Larry Hennessy / Flickr / Used With Permission

    Puffins are large auks with broad, colorful bills and whimsical expressions, so they are often called sea clowns or sea parrots. They are powerful swimmers and nest in large breeding colonies, typically on offshore islands or isolated northern coasts. They have an upright posture on land; their wingbeats are rapid, and their path is direct while in flight. There are only three puffin species, horned, Atlantic, and tufted, all in the Alcidae bird family.

    Species Overview

    Length: 11 to 15 inches; 20- to 25-inch wingspan

    Weight: 13 ounces to 1.7 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Short, stalking diving bird; black on its uppersides and white on its chest and belly; bright orange webbed feet; white face and cheeks; large, triangular bright red and yellow parrot-like bill

  • 11 of 14


    Flesh-Footed Shearwater

    Ed Dunens / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Shearwaters are part of the Procellariidae family. Shearwaters are small petrels with long wings specializing in low, gliding flight. Their wingtips may brush the waves and "shear the water" as they fly, giving these birds their familiar name. There are more than 35 shearwater species with a wide variety of sizes. They can be found worldwide, but they often remain far out to sea. Where feeding conditions are ideal, they gather in large groups, especially where ocean upwellings bring prey such as fish, plankton, and squid close to the surface.

    Species Overview

    Length: 15 to 25 inches; 24- to 30-inch wingspan

    Weight: 1.5 to 2.2 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Medium-sized; dark-coloration; tube-nosed ending with a sharp, slender, hooked bill

  • 12 of 14


    White-Tailed Tropicbird

    kansasphoto / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Unlike many seabirds, tropicbirds have primarily white plumage and are easily identified by their very long streaming tail feathers. They have short legs and are shallow plunge divers when they hunt. There are only three species of tropicbird that are the only members of the Phaethontidae family: the red-billed tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird, and the red-tailed tropicbird.

    Species Overview

    Length: 29 to 40 inches; 37- to 44-inch wingspan

    Weight: 10 to 25 ounces

    Physical Characteristics: Mostly white feathers, sometimes with a bit of pink; black wing markings; black marks at the eyes; speckled feathers on their backs

    Continue to 13 of 14 below.
  • 13 of 14


    Seagull flying through the air

    Debby Hudson / Unsplash

    Gulls in the Laridae family are commonly called seagulls; there are 54 gull species. They are closely related to terns and distantly related to auks. Gulls are typically medium to large birds that are intelligent, using loud wailing or squawking calls to communicate. Most gulls are ground-nesting, monogamous carnivores that like to eat crustaceans, mollusks, fish, small birds, and will scavenge opportunistically. Gulls have unhinging jaws which allow them to consume larger prey. Most gull species are migratory, with birds moving to warmer habitats during the winter.

    Species Overview

    Length: 11 to 31 inches; 24- to 65-inch wingspan

    Weight: 4 ounces to 4 pounds

    Physical Characteristics: Usually gray or white, often with black markings on the head or wings; stout, longish bills; webbed feet

  • 14 of 14


    Pair of terns on the sand

    Joshua J. Cotten / Unsplash

    Terns are seabirds in the Sternidae family, formerly part of the gulls' Laridae family. There are 40 tern species, and they are all slender, lightly built birds. The Arctic tern migrates further than any other bird on the planet, traveling from pole to pole, breeding on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the northern summer and heading to the Southern Hemisphere for the southern summer. North American Arctic terns fly about 25,000 miles each year round trip. Most other tern species travel long distances between the breeding and non-breeding season.

    Species Overview

    Length: 17 to 20 inches; 14- to 15-inch wingspan

    Weight: 13.8 to 15.2 ounces

    Physical Characteristics: Long, forked tails; narrow wings; long bills, relatively short legs; pale grey above, white below, with a contrasting black head cap